Director: Josh Cooley
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu Reeves
Running time: 100 minutes
Pixar pencils in a play date with existentialism in their latest offering of toy tomfoolery. It hardly comes a surprise, however: Disney have never been one to shy away from coating their joyous, family-friendly sheen with a lick of maturity. But rarely has such philosophical dabbling felt so wonderfully apt. “Why does this exist?” was the question poised on the tip of nearly every tongue when it was announced the band that started it all would be getting back together for a fourth instalment. It was a completely valid question, of course: after Toy Story 3 brought the curtain down on the tale of talking toys with such satisfying and heart-wrenching elegance, the story of Woody and Buzz — of a plucky pull-string sheriff and righteous spaceman — seemed all but shelved forever.
Infinity and beyond has not yet been reached it seems, however, and there is one snake in the boot not yet shaken. Cue a spork with stick-on eyes and pipe cleaner arms with one serious identity crisis.
Even by Pixar’s standards, and amidst such a plethora of peculiar plastic — a sheepish dinosaur; a sarcastic piggy bank called Ham; the Potato Heads — Forky (Hale) is arguably the studio’s biggest gamble. The franchise’s first non-traditional toy character, in the wrong hands, this eccentric utensil has the capacity to not only lumber the series with a flat, recycled sidekick, but, more devastatingly, tear down twenty-four glorious years of animated antics in one cash-fuelled swoop. Thankfully, this is far from the case: Forky’s introduction is instead one that carries with it a poignant thematic thread, bringing all new dilemmas and all new depths to toy town.
But long before its plastic protagonist started life as an inanimate meal-deal-accessory-turned-sentient-play-thing, Toy Story 4 begins on a rainy night somewhen between the series’ second and third film. Woody (Hanks) leads a daring mission to rescue R.C. from being swept down a storm drain. Naturally, all the familiar faces — Buzz (Allen), Jessie (Cusack), Slink (Blake Clark) and co. — are quick to offer a helping hand. The undertaking is a successful one, but the elation is short lived. ‘No toy gets left behind’, the long-upheld mantra of the series’ selfless sheriff, quickly gets a painful dose of reality when one of Woody’s closest and most loyal friends, Bo Peep (Potts), is sold off and carried away into the night.
Nine years on, with Andy gone and the toys’ loyalty — and new lease of life — now resting with loving new owner Bonnie, Woody’s time at the top is over. Regularly stripped of his badge during playtime and reduced to life in the cupboard, his allegiance to his child is nevertheless unwavering. So, when Bonnie returns home from Kindergarten having (quite literally) made a new friend — the spork who’s convinced he’s trash, and trash only — Woody takes it upon himself to once again assure another newcomer that he is not only a toy, but Bonnie’s toy. Hilarity, hardship and heartbreak soon follow when Forky gets lost on a family holiday; but Woody and the gang are quickly on hand to help bring this lost toy home.
Familiarity registers as loudly as the on-the-nose Randy Newman tracks that sound throughout Toy Story 4. Deluded new toy arrives; deluded new toy gets lost; deluded new toy becomes deluded no more; new toy no longer deluded is found — the narrative is one we know well, treading the well-trodden path carved out in the first film. Toy Story 4 digs a little deeper, however, exploring the existential foundations of the entire franchise: what does it really mean to be a toy in Toy Story?
Issues of identity, importance and inner voices penetrate the pliable exterior of a number of Toy Story 4’s key players once the strange spork makes his entrance. But if the marketing was plastered with those characters both new and improved — Forky and a revamped, renegade Bo Peep — the film itself, at its heart, concerns the faithful old guard. Namely, the altruistic Woody: now a seasoned toy in the twilight days of his own perceived shelf life. This time round it seems, there’s more trouble for this pull-string, hat-wearing hero than the threat of antique doll Gabby Gabby (Hendricks) — at first a conventional antagonist, but later revealed to be altogether more complex — and her following of creepy ventriloquist dummies.
A double-act of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as carnival prize duo Bunny and Ducky and a Keanu Reeves-voiced Canadian daredevil toy Duke Caboom supply the quirky comic relief, while Disney lather on thick their usual dose of heartfelt emotion. Visually stunning and nostalgically tinged — from its old school fun fair to its unnerving, Overlook-esque antique store — this is a film that looks back as much as it looks forward. And, perhaps for the first time in the series, this a Toy Story film almost exclusively about the toys, rather than those whose names are etched onto their sole. In turn, those very same toys have etched themselves onto our souls. Again. For the fourth time.
Pixar have only gone and produced the goods once more. Was there really ever any doubt?